Lecture 1: Human Beings as God’s Image?

Earlier this evening Senior Professor Michael Welker gave the first of his six Gifford Lectures. The video of Welker’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Gregory Parker Jr. will offer his initial reflections on the lecture. Parker is a second year PhD student in Systematic Theology at the School of Divinity here at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Welker’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Welker opened his lecture by stating his profound honor for the opportunity to give the Gifford lectures and his gratitude to those who have helped make it happen. Welker then moved on to discuss Lord Gifford’s intentions for the lectures regarding the stipulation that they be an undertaking of “natural theology” and that they be delivered with a “general and popular audience in mind” (including those who might be “critical of or indifferent toward religion”). Keen to take up these two challenges Welker noted that “at this point Christian theologians must leave aside for a moment the central tenet of faith, namely, that God is revealed to human beings in Jesus Christ.”  He went on to state that he perceived “two fundamental ways of meeting these challenges.” One is to start with scientific and historical research “and then try to reach out to human ‘belief’ and faith’ in their various forms” while another is to start with the “social and cultural realities” of various aspects of human existence today including, in part, “the wealth of philosophical, cultural, religious, and theological impulses” embedded and embodied within these realities. While admitting that the scientific and historical research approach is worthwhile, he stated that the latter social/cultural approach is how he proposed to proceed in these lectures. He described it as a “realistic theology” that works from the bottom up, taking the various particularities of human existence seriously as they are actually experienced by various people today.

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He went on to note that he viewed “Lord Gifford’s will and guidelines as a challenge whose relevance remains undiminished here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” As he stated further, “Immanuel Kant’s grand program of comprehending ‘religion within the limits of reason alone’ remains vibrant even today at least as a topic of discussion” especially given “the burning desire to strengthen interreligious and interdisciplinary communication and shared searches for truth and conditions of peace.” Although he did note, and go on to further develop, that Kant’s approach as it stands would most likely appear to be too abstract and removed from the experiences of many people today and thus in need of some refashioning in order to meet Lord Gifford’s challenge that the lectures be intended for “a general and popular audience.”

Welker then stated the fundamental question of these lectures: “whether and, if so, how human beings in their natural, social, and cultural existence can be understood as the image of God (imago Dei).” He went on to mentioned that in this lecture the very assumption that human beings can indeed be understood as the image(s) of God needed to be questioned. Especially given the dark, corrupted, negligent, and apathetic aspects present in and manifested between human beings with each other and with their environment. If we want to inquire into whether human beings can still be understood as being in the image of God then we need to have an honest account of human existence as we know it: the good as well as the bad. And it is the dark aspects of human existence that poses the initial challenge to the assumption that humans are indeed in the image of God. As Welker himself asked, “Worse yet, with what sort of God are we then dealing if human beings, even in their abysses, are to be conceived as the ‘image of God’?”

At this point Welker started into the specifics of his first lecture. He began again with Kant and his Critique of Practical Reason as well as the biblical Psalter. Both Kant and the Psalter (although with more intensity) express “the breadth of human existence between frailty and sublimity, finitude and grand destiny” in their own ways. However, rather than seek to impart the specific contents of these descriptions concerning the breadth of human existence to a popular audience Welker instead chose to ask “how they themselves already understand the breadth of human existence.” As he went on to state, “probably not a single person would think to mention, as does Kant, the tension between the almost inevitable annihilation of one’s own significance and reality, on the one hand, and one’s elevation through the moral law, on the other. Just as little would we expect anyone to mention the tensions between mortals being ‘mere dust’ and yet simultaneously only a ‘little lower than God.’” So he went on to ask, “how does popular culture understand the breadth of human existence today?”

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Here Welker began the first of three parts of this lecture entitled, “Human charisma and radiant power, and the dangers of emotionalized public sentiment.” The first part of popular culture that he focused on was “elite athletic competition.” He noted the immense emotional power that these sporting events have for many people around the world, not only for individuals but also for communities. They elicit admiration of the physical and mental skill as well as for the discipline needed to achieve and maintain top level performance. Spectators often move beyond a mere observation of these athletes and teams and into identifying with them, participating by vicariously sharing in the celebration of their victories, the despondence of their defeats, and in their hopes for the future. As Welker stated, “Who can resist being swept up in the exuberant joy unleashed following a victorious team performance of top athletes? But failure, too, a lost match, a missed chance, generates experiences of mass shock and pain that in the heat of the moment are by no means assuaged by the fact that such a pain generally passes rather quickly and indeed just as quickly transforms into optimistic hope for future victory.”

Welker then went on to note that this “phenomenon of emotionally charged sentiment” is not only present with elite sports but can also be found in in various forms of political existence. This can be found in peaceful political actions and demonstrations aimed at remedying oppressive situations, but it can also take a turn for the worse “whenever marches, parades, and mass rallies are functionalized to manipulate people politically or even to discipline them” and especially so when “political moral aggression and hatred are intentionally roused, stoked, exploited, and sustained.”

At this point Welker transitioned into the second part of his lecture: “Paths into danger, misery, and ruin.” He began by engaging Hannah Arendt (briefly along with Karl Jaspers) and her examination of the ‘political and moral paths that lead populations and nations into danger, misery and ruin.” He expressed, among other things, his admiration for Arendt’s commitment to an honest search for truth regardless of how it is received and for her “service to human dignity.” As he stated, “Arendt focuses on the most extreme forms of tyranny by exhaustively examining the history and emergence of the reigns of terror in German National Socialism and in Stalinism.” As he went on to say, “in almost all her writings, Arendt concentrates on determining how even in preliminary or nascent forms of political violence one might discern and possibly even thwart this human susceptibility to total domination and terror.” Welker then went on to discuss her work that resulted from observing the Eichmann trial and her provocative description of the “banality of evil.”

Welker then moved on to further discuss how Arendt’s findings did not merely apply to totalitarian regimes, but could also apply to aspects of “free civil associations that constitute part of late-modern pluralistic consumer societies.” As he further explained, “She fears that the sphere of public politics, overwhelmed by egoistic and distracted privatism, will eventually become stultified.” He went on to note Arendt’s distinction between power and violence (contra Max Weber) and noted her further clarification that “’Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.’” At this point, however, Welker turned to Jurgen Habermas’s sympathetic yet critical assessment of Arendt’s refusal to satisfcatorily incorporate a “strategic exercise of power” into her reflections on political existence. He ended this second section of his lecture by stating, “the strategic exercise of power is politically indispensable. Criticizing it as a manifestation of violence and excluding it inevitably leads to a loss of contact with political reality.”

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At this point Welker turned to the third and final part of his first lecture: “Realistic visions of liberation and freedom?” He began by acknowledging again that Arendt’s various diagnoses of the emergence of terror-based rule and the various forms of humanitarian suffering “are extremely astute and extremely instructive.” Welker also showed his appreciation for Arendt’s insistence that philosophers need to pay more attention to the plurality of human existence and for her frequent criticisms of “bipolar thinking.” As Welker went on to explain, “although person-to-person relationships are important in the daily life of individuals, they cannot grasp complex social circumstances. Nor does a hypothetical multiplicity of such bipolar relations yield any realistic concept of actual social constellations.” Despite this agreement with and appreciation for Arendt, however, Welker questioned the sufficiency of her constructive proposals, especially the viability of her concept of “natality.” As he stated, “a natural theology or ideology of natality will not be sufficient” given the many harsh realities and dark abysses of human existence that have persistent into the twenty-first century (many of which concern the well-being of children).

As he closed his first lecture he began to mention Arendt’s own self-critical reflection “on the limitations of a mentalistic, bipolar understanding of the mind” noting that mere “thinking and willing seem to break down as powers of resistance.”  He closed by stating that “the next lecture will seek a deeper understanding of the divine and human spirit, one that can help us describe more clearly human destiny in the image of God,” and one that potential offers hope for a way out of this desolate situation.

6 thoughts on “Lecture 1: Human Beings as God’s Image?

  1. Human Beings as God’s Image? Language of Hope
    – Gregory Parker Jr.

    There was no greater communal ecstasy and despair for a 10-year-old from Philadelphia in 2001 than the NBA Finals. The series opened up with Allen Iverson’s stunning 48 point performance, which was capped by his emotional and now infamous step-over Tyron Lue. My heart was set on a parade down Broad Street. Only a short four games later, the Lakers led by the indomitable tandem of Kobe and Shaq had their own parade in Los Angeles. And Philly, as we often are at the end of sports seasons, was clinically depressed; our heroes had failed us, once again. Sports was the entryway into an enlightening first lecture by Michael Welker. It is here he suggested we see popularly the capacity for humankind to intoxicate us. Joy and despair; the marvel of dominance and the abyss of disappointment. The bewitchment of emotional and expressive vulnerabilities.

    The susceptibility of humankind to be enraptured both positively and negatively within their communities led the lecture to discuss, what could be theologically summarized as pervasive depravity. That is, that humankind is oriented towards destruction, apathy, and hatred. This was driven home by Hannah Arendt’s bleak assessment of humanity and Welker’s evenhanded criticism of Arendt’s solution of “natality”. In light of this can one say that we are made in the image of God? In the wake of the horrors of the 21st century can we say such a glorious thing of humankind? This challenge Welker will set off to answer over the course of the next five lectures. This is a conversation that all theologians should be having and an implicit challenge for all humans in the 21st century concerned about the future of humanity.

    The explicit challenge here then is to consider in a non-reductionistic manner how the human spirit might remain oriented or open to a more positive future. Or how the human spirit might be open to something beyond the egoism of the self? Or more particularly, open to God. One option perhaps, outside of the scope of Welker’s purview that we might be able to gesture towards is the path of language. An option that remains open to us in this conversation restricted to the methods of natural theology. Charles Taylor a contemporary Catholic philosopher has attempted to trod this path through perceiving humans as “language animals.” Taylor’s vision opens the door for the human spirit being open to the divine.

    Taylor’s “language animals” might provide two features to the conversation. Firstly, it views language as an activity of the community and thus beyond the individual. This places expressivist wheels on the emotionally charged sentiments of the community. Language thus shapes and constitutes the community. We might see this language of joy and despair transmitted by fanbases minute by minute on Twitter. Or perhaps the power of a hashtag like #Trusttheprocess. Or more cynically, we see communities commit atrocities by their “othering” of others with language. A concentrated look at language might be brought into dialogue with Arendt’s “plural we.” Nonetheless here thinking and willing (might I add speaking), according to Welker still fail us.

    This is when the second feature of language might bring us beyond strictly human communities. Taylor also sees embedded in language the ability to make or create meaning. Humans are thus self-interpreting creatures that can also articulate purpose. This capacity for humans to express and create meaning opens us up not just to others in the community, but to something higher or deeper. For him this something higher or deeper is God. This connects back to the problem of evil. If humans neglect this openness to the transcendent, then we will fail to live out our humanness.

    I won’t pretend that this step into “language” provides “The Answer” to the prevailing problem of evil, and with it the question of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God. Nonetheless, perhaps an approach through language might further the discussion. Moreover, it remains a uniquely human (and angelic) enterprise that opens us up to something beyond our own banality.

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  2. Superb lecture Never was a big sports fan and always felt demonstrations/ marches only produced a feel good factor for participants and never contributed anything to the betterment of society Humans as being in the image of God? Tough one Looking forward to finding out in rest of lectures

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  3. I am very grateful for Gregory Parker’s comments. They help me to clarify a few issues. Despite the atrocities I referred to in my first lecture, I would not hold an overall pessimistic view of humankind. I could not say that “humankind IS DRIVEN toward destruction, apathy etc.” By evil forces and spirits it has been and still can be driven toward self-endangerment and destruction … I could also not speak of “our own banality”, although I often critique “self-banalization” even in religion and theology.
    I see the importance of concentrating on language in dealing with anthropology and the image of God. But language can function on many levels and work for the good and the bad, as Gregory Parker clearly sees. We can use language on levels which just support our survival-strategies (jointly providing and destributing food for example). On this level I would go along with Taylor’s talk about “language animals”. It does not fit with Shakespeare’s sonnetts or Einstein’s Relativity Theory, and many other modes of communication via languages. But even the full sophistication of language is not enough to imagine the interactive aesthetic and practical powers of the spirit. And the “openness to the transcendent” provides only a very vague notion of the divine and all sorts of numinous powers and illusions. The specific powers of the divine and human spirits are of crucial importance, when we want to deal with challenging ethical, epistemological and religious issues.

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  4. Following on from above comment about his dislike of sport….I wonder about the quality of emotions experienced societally during massed spectatorship at major sports events and at public rallies/protests. Are these felt emotions any different at the mass gatherings of pop concerts and gigs, where fans may enthusiastically adulate their pop stars? Emotions that may lead to the feelings of one-to-one desire for relationships by the more susceptible and daresay, smitten fans? I would like to offer the opinion that perhaps the emotions felt by participants at sports events would tend to follow a more bipolar, almost gladiatorial quality? By this I infer that there are winners and losers, victors and the defeated, the trophy holders and those who come away without….To contrast, I propose that the massed feelings of the concert audience are far more subtle and nuanced, and ‘in tune’ with the performance content, be it about love, anguish, happiness, joy or even protest and so on. Indeed possibly deepening so much that the feelings of individual relationship can emerge within the smitten fan.

    In this country (Scotland) I have personal experience of our junior schooling system dampening down the emotions felt during the school sports day: rather than coming away with first, second and third, the reward seems to be a far more bland ribbon, or sticker, stating that the event ‘was completed’ by that child. The musical arts are struggling to maintain pupil numbers and indeed, teachers. I am of the belief that our political and educational institutional structures are in danger of harming the abilities of our younger generations to recognise and indeed, feel healthily, a range of very different emotions. Adolescence is the learning period of emotional experience and handling, and to fail in our provision of opportunity for healthy emotional expression, and indeed, venting of emotion, is surely a path towards a society containing intellectually incomplete human beings?

    I move on to an anthropological neuropsychological argument now. The emotions of conquest, victory and gain are clearly related to our ancient human role of predator/hunter. This status of dominion is a primaeval one, very much linked to the necessity of having to get that kill in order to feed the family and indeed, the wider tribe. This can be appreciated to be a matter of life and death, especially before winter comes. (The calorific content of a vegan diet would not have been enough to sustain neolithic mankind during its migration to colder climes…. so I remove from the ecological argument of a plant based diet in this blog). The life of the hunter was a much more adrenaline-filled aspect of human life. Somewhere along the line humanity has evolved such that the need to kill in order to survive has become a need to dominate, suppress or even hurt within an environment that has been created by that human society purely for spectator participation in this interaction between the dominator and the oppressed. This is the arena where the experience of a far more raw, gladiatorial emotion-set occurs – fight,fright and flight.

    The development of abstract thought and hence, language is far from primaeval and has brought humanity to a state where communication, record keeping and projection of ideas has become the status quo. Out of this picture we can then see how the arts have elevated societal expression of emotions towards a far more aesthetic or even metaphysical level. Here, there seems to be a choice of how we feel when faced with, say an icon, an oil painting, or an orchestra playing a moving piece of music. Here, the artist has become a god in our world, a creator of the great masterpiece, to be admired, or even indeed, worshipped. To experience the divine may be to strive in our creationality such that what we give back to society is good, harmless and filled with choice of response for the expected viewer/listener?

    To reduce the qualities of the emotions felt during the school sports day and to remove the opportunities for learning a musical instrument and performing is, I believe one of a myriad of societal factors that is making our younger generations less able to cope with the pressures of massed emotion. Bring this fault out into the world of societal media, and there is possibly a ticking time bomb therein. I make a massive leap here – there is not enough time in this blog to refine and reconsider what I am really trying to say. I may have the excuse that my deafness and the fact that I hated my teacher of English at school have a lot to do with my stunted linguistic and creative abilities….

    Professor Welker has been silent on the effect of the created arts on societal response thus far. The expression and indeed, appreciation, of art is a hugely important facet of the human mind. I would like Professor Welker to identify whether or not there are anthropological differences of felt emotions that are inherent in massed gatherings at sports events vs, concerts vs. rallies to give but a few examples. To me, each one of these would stimulate different areas of our brains and in certain situations, possibly remove us further from God?

    I propose that there has to be a healthydevelopment in our skill of discernment during use of social media towards a more healthy and global inclusivity. But who gets to be the censor? Religion? Political? Educational? Habermas’ idealistic, bureaucratic model of society would seem to be impossible, given the risks of ideological development and totalitarianism so spectacularly portrayed by Hannah Arendt. How do we move towards a situation where a theologically more detached, uniform and peaceful use of social media can bring ‘heaven down to earth’ for us all? Is our enjoyment and playfulness experienced in arts creativity being displaced within the hoi polloi by the feelings of life and death long experienced post-wars by the the dispossessed, harmed and the neglected. These are feelings that are surely magnified by the global exposure of instant media to our vulnerable young generations?

    I am only asking many questions, because I feel insignificant in the face of the great and good of society, but these little questions may be the acorns from which more oak trees of wisdom can be harvested. I have some answers of my own, but yearn to hear suggestions from others. Thank you for reading thus far.

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  5. Sorry I omitted a reference to some thought provoking reading and which formed much of substance of my aforeblogged arguments……
    “Do our modern skulls house stone-age minds?” JS Lavelle & K Smith Philosophy and the Sciences for Everyone (2015) pp 67-85

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  6. Ms. Watson basically responds to Gregory Parker’s comments. My remarks on the powers of media-related competitive sports just wanted to illustrate a popular emotional approach (which Lord Gifford wanted to be included) towards the breadth of the human person today. And it was also a bridge towards illuminating the ambivalence and even potential dangers of strong emotionalizations of human publics. I did not intend to deal with all sorts of emotional impacts on our minds. And I did not even want to touch the ocean of the impacts of arts. All this would require another series (or several series) of lectures.
    Michael Welker

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